Well thank you for that introduction. Thank you for the warm welcome. Above all, thank you for the massive investment that you’re making here in the north-west and it’s a great honour to open the 200 million global hub that you’re announcing today.
Investment in Britain
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne and I, the team at the top of the government, have been passionate about wanting more investment in Britain and you have been carrying out that investment. We’re passionate that we research and develop more products and make more things here in Britain and that is exactly what Unilever have been doing. It’s a staggering fact about how much of the product made in Britain is sold in Britain. And we’ve also been saying, we want to see more training and development and apprenticeships in Britain and that is something Unilever has been pushing forward. So thank you for that.
And what we want to do is create the economic conditions where companies like yours can go on investing, go on researching, go on making and developing new products so Britain can be a success.
Now today is about your questions and our answers but I just wanted to say 2 things about how I think we’re getting on as a country. First of all, on the economy. I’m not standing here and saying that in under 5 years we’ve solved all of Britain’s economic problems; of course, we haven’t. But I do think we’re making good progress. We’ve got a plan and we’re sticking to that plan. We said we’d get the deficit down; we cut it by 1 half. We said we wanted to get the country back to work; we’ve now got 1.75 million more people in work than when I became Prime Minister. Here in the north-west, there are about 100,000 more people working today than was the case 4 years ago.
A lot more to do but the fact is, the country is getting back to work. The economy is growing. We’ve now got the fastest growing economy of any major economy in Europe. So we’re making economic progress.
What’s absolutely vital is that we stick to that progress, we stick to that plan. But here’s the second thing I want to say. I think it’s really vital that we turn that economic plan into a plan that gives you and your families and this country, greater economic security.
So point one is we’ve got to go on creating jobs. I want more people to have the security and the stability of a regular pay packet. Yesterday I was in Accrington and I pushed the button restarting a brick factory that had stood idle for 6 years. But we are again now as a country making bricks, building houses, selling homes to people, to give them a chance of that dream of home ownership. So more jobs.
I want you to be able to keep more of your own money to spend as you choose. From next - from this April, you’ll be able to £10,600 before you start paying any income tax at all. I want to push that to £12,500 so that people on minimum wage can work a full working week and not pay income tax. I think that would make us a fairer, stronger and better country.
I want us to build the homes that people can afford to buy. We’re going to build 100,000 starter homes, price them at 80% of the market price and help people, as we have with the help-to-buy scheme, to become home owners.
I want to make sure we’ve got good school places for all our children. I’ve got three children under the age of 10, all at state schools in London. I want to know that there are going to be good primary and secondary school places so you can get a great education, the chance of a great apprenticeship or a great university place so we can be a brilliantly trained and educated nation.
And I want to make sure at the end of all this, people get the dignity and security that they deserve in retirement. Now, we had to make difficult decisions but we did maintain our promise of saying to pensioners that the pension would always be upright - uprated, by prices or earnings or 2.5%. So a pensioner today gets £800 more a year than they did 4 years ago.
Those are - they may be simple things: a job, more money at the end of a month, a home that you can call your own, a good school place for your child, dignity and security in retirement. They are simple things but that doesn’t mean they are easy to achieve. But they are absolutely what I and the government and George are focused on in the years ahead. I just wanted to say that to try and set out what I think the next few months should be about.
But I’m here to answer questions. George is here to answer questions. Please range as widely as you like. There are terrible things happening at the moment as we speak in France in terms of terrorism. We’ve got huge challenges in our own country. We’ve got challenges all over the world. Please feel free to ask questions about anything. I can’t promise I’ll have the answer but I’ll have a good go.
Hello. When I left school, I felt the main focus was on pupils to apply directly to university as opposed to apprenticeships. Do you think it’s important that we raise the awareness of apprentice - apprenticeship opportunities for young people?
I absolutely do. I think this is not a criticism of teachers but I think in our schools, up to now, we haven’t always explained what the options are. Most teachers have been to university themselves so they are very familiar: A levels, UCAS forms, applications for university. It’s a great route for people take and I want as many people to go to university as feel they would benefit from it. I don’t think we should put a cap on it. I think we should make that available to as many as possible and because of our reforms, it’s now more affordable for people to go to university.
But the alternative of doing an apprenticeship, we haven’t told people enough about the options. So in this parliament, we made some good progress; 2 million people have started an apprenticeship. And I think one of the ways of selling it and explaining it is that this actually can lead, particularly in great companies like Unilever, to the opportunity not just of a starting apprenticeship, but following up that with further training in education while you’re earning and learning that can lead to a university degree as well. So let’s lay out the alternatives for young people.
I’ve met too many young people in the last four or five years who’ve been to university, not got much out of it in their own view, and then gone on to do an apprenticeship. And it might have been better for them if they got that choice
I was at the Ford plant in Dagenham the other day and I was talking to apprentices who’d left school at 18, 4 year apprenticeship and at the end of that, they were hoping to earn as much as £30,000. So I know, if I’m not going to create wage inflation here at Unilever, but I mean it’s actually - there are many people who are leaving university who wouldn’t get a salary like that. So let’s lay out the facts and figures so people can see the choices. But don’t put any cap on aspiration. As many as want to go to university, should be able to. No cap on aspiration in our country.
Hi, this question is to both of you. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a number of businesses leave the UK, the north west and the UK, and set up businesses in other countries. Is the - there’s 2 parts to it. Do you think it’s really important to encourage businesses to really stay in the north-west and the UK overall? And the second point, what additional ideas do you have to encourage businesses in the north-western UK to invest in expertise in resources as we go forward?
Yes, I’ll do the first bit and I’ll ask the Chancellor to do the second bit. First of all, it is vital that we get businesses not just to expand in the north-west but also to come and locate in the north-west. One of the things we’ve been talking about over the last 2 days is, look, we do not want this recovery to be like previous economic recoveries where the jobs are being created in the south and in London and the north - parts of the north have been left behind. We want it to be different this time.
Now the good news is, in the last year, actually the north-west has grown faster than the rest of the country. In the last 3 months, jobs growth in the north-west has been faster than the rest of the country. The apprenticeship I was just speaking about, they have been more apprenticeships created in the north-west than the rest of the country.
But we really need this rebalancing of our economy to take place. So we certainly don’t want to see companies go overseas. In fact, 1 of the things I believe we’re beginning to see now is quite a lot of reshoring because we’ve become more competitive. We’re actually seeing companies starting to manufacture here when they were previously manufacturing abroad.
We started the day at a small company in Stockport that made sports equipment. And they were saying they actually had a problem recruiting people here in Britain who could do some of the manufacturing work that they now wanted to bring back from China and do here in Britain. But Chancellor, more things we can do here to help the investment climate.
Yes, well thank you very much for inviting me along as well.
I’m a Cheshire MP and I feel very strongly about making sure the north of England and the north-west of England in particular, does well out of this economic recovery and that we don’t widen that gap between the north and south in our countries, which is bad for the whole country. And we’ve got an idea, which is the Northern powerhouse idea, which is that if you take the great cities of the north and the counties in between them and you connect them together, you will have a global centre that can rival anywhere.
And we’ve got great science here and of course, Port Sunlight is a really important part of that. We’ve got great transport connections. We’ve got great culture, great sport, this is a great place to live. But we can do more to improve all of those things. And the investment we’re putting in to the transport system, the fast railways that we’re building, which take time to build so these things can’t be done overnight but they’re going to transform the economic geography of the north.
The investment we’re putting in to science, indeed with Unilever, working with the University of Liverpool, the University of Manchester, making these great science centres of the world, the money into the schools and the housing; that will create a northern powerhouse that will attract business from around the world. And I think one of the great strengths of Britain is that we have got countries like China, countries in the Middle East, putting their money into Britain. And when they choose to put it into Britain, they are quite often now putting it into the north-west and we should welcome that investment. It brings jobs to this country, it brings economic opportunities to this country and it creates global brands.
And I think one of the really exciting things about the day we’ve had today is here we are at one of the most successful companies in the world, 1 of the longest established companies in the world. We actually have just come from Warrington where there’s a new internet business called the Hut group which has come from almost nowhere. It’s just about to take on 2,000 new people. This company didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago and it’s exporting its business around the world. So whether it’s great businesses like this that have been here for a long time, new businesses, the north-west is where it’s at and that northern powerhouse is moving
We recently sent 300 of our employees into local schools to work with young people about self-esteem through the Dove programme at a time when they’re starting to really feel the pressure of these sorts of issues from peers and from the media. It really did land well with the students and we felt there was a really positive impact from the work that we did, and I just wondered if you had any thoughts on making this a mandatory part of the national curriculum so that all teenagers get the benefit of these sorts of initiatives at a time when they’re starting to feel all these pressures?
Well that’s a very good question. I - to be absolutely frank with you, I worry about putting too many things into the compulsory national curriculum for this reason. That I passionately believe that if as a country we’re going to be a success, we’ve got to get the basics in education right. We’ve got to make sure that people get the core of a good education.
I mean, a tragic fact for you: I was visiting Mercedes the other day in Britain and they said they took on 5000 apprentices and I said that’s fantastic. And I said, ‘How many people apply?’ And they said, ‘Well 30,000 people apply for these apprentices.’ And I said, ‘How do you decide who to take from the 30,000?’ and they said, ‘I’m afraid it’s all too easy because we struggle sometimes to find 5000 that have the basics in terms of GSCE in maths and English.’
So the point of telling this story is what we mustn’t do with our schools is give our teachers so many instructions and so many compulsory things in the curriculum that we lose sight of the absolute importance of the basic education.
Having said that, I think all good schools should be thinking about, not just the facts and figures and the qualifications, but they should be asking themselves the question, ‘How do I prepare this young person for life in modern Britain?’ And you’re absolutely right that there are all sorts of issues, whether it’s about sex and relationship education, whether it’s about esteem, whether it is about the dangers - the opportunities we have online but also the dangers. And I think there, we do need businesses to help.
You would - I think, after you’ve done some of those sessions, the feedback you get is great because students love hearing from people in different walks of life. And I think sometimes we’ve kept our businesses out of school far too much. I’d like all of you to go back to the schools you went to, whether you’re doing an apprenticeship, whether you’re studying here as a PhD student and go and tell them the story of how you came to be doing the thrilling job you’re doing at Port Sunlight. Because you would inspire people. And that would probably give greater self-esteem than anything else you can do.
So please go on doing that. We do have a PHSE in education and we need to make sure the curriculum there is good, but let’s not stuff everything into a compulsory curriculum, otherwise we might lose the real edge we need for our young people in the word in the future.
The National Health Service, safe under your watch?
Yes, ‘It is,’ is the short answer. But obviously, we got some big challenges right now. We made some choices at the beginning of the government that I lead. We had to make some public spending reductions, we had a budget deficit which was 10% of our GDP - 1 of the biggest anywhere in the world. And we knew we had to make some cuts.
And if you take for instance, the police force, we have reduced police funding by 20%. Crime has actually fallen because the police have done a nailing good job at doing more with less. But we said, back then in 2010, we’re not going to cut the NHS. And we put more money in, so every year, it’s got a little bit more than inflation - about 13 billion pounds in all. And there are more doctors, more nurses in our health service. And they’re treating, I think, overall 6 million more inpatient appointments every year than when I became Prime Minister.
But there’s no doubt Accident & Emergency faces a real challenge. The numbers have gone up. We’ve got an ageing population. We’ve got more frail, elderly people in our communities; people who, often actually, would be better if they were treated in a community rather than A&E, but huge numbers have been going to A&E and so we need to respond to that.
We put in an extra 700 million this winter. So this winter, the NHS faced these challenges with more doctors, more nurses, more money than ever before, but that is only a short-term answer. The medium and long-term answer has got to be about making it easier to go and see your GP, making it easier to have services in the community. So we got now about 7 million people in our country who can get 7 day access to a GP; GPs that are opened 7 days a week because that is actually I think what people want. If you can get those appointments really easily, you know how to get to your GP, that will take the pressure off A&E. So we got to do those things as well.
We’ve also got to help people be looked after in the community. We’ve got to improve those social care outcomes. But as for the future, we’ve said we’ll do the same thing again. [political content]
So it is absolutely safe in my hands. My family has relied on the NHS; I rely on the NHS. I know what it’s like when you got a desperately ill son and you’re struggling to get to A&E and you want that great treatment. It’s a magic thing we got in our country, that when you get to a hospital, you don’t have to produce your wallet or your credit card or anything. You get great treatment because it’s a birthright of being British that we have a National Health Service that’s free at the point of use and available to all those who need it. And it’s one of the precious things about being Britain. And as long as I’m Prime Minister, that will always be the case.
We still seem to be dogged by the European question. Now here, in organisations like this, we did the European thing many, many years ago. We can’t remember being anything other than an integral part in Europe. I joined Unilever many, many years ago because it was a global company, and I’ve been able to go all around the world within Unilever and we interact continually day in daily with people all over the world.
How do you see - whatever way we resolve the European question, and I know there’s still some work to do there. How do we make sure that we don’t go back into being an isolationist UK, and that we continue to be a significant country on an increasingly complicated global stage?
A very good question, and I could do it in half an hour. But I’ll try and do it in a minute. I mean, basically, you’re right. Britain’s past glory, and in my view, future success, will be based on being an open-trading international country. That’s who we are. That’s what Unilever is. That’s where our success is based. I started today doing an interview with a British-Asian newspaper, and I was proud to be talking about how Britain is the biggest investor in India. And actually, India invests more in Britain than in every other European country combined. Our openness is part of our success. It will always be an international country. The question is, how do we get our relationship right with Europe?
Well my view is that we’re a trading nation, we’re a cooperation nation, we’re a leading partner in Europe. So, of course, we should be working with other European countries to do just that. The problem, I think, had come about because Europe is going in 2 different directions. You’ve got 1 bunch of countries that have decided to have a single currency, the Euro, and that has driven a level of integration that I think has made Europe change and change quite markedly. Because, look, we got a single currency here in the United Kingdom. We share a currency, we do with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And when you got a single currency, you need to have a single banking system. You need to have a single tax system. You need to have a whole lot of decision-making that comes together. And I think the development of the Euro has meant that Europe has been travelling in a direction that Britain isn’t really comfortable with.
Yeah, look, it’s a good question. The gap between the north and the south has been growing for the last 40 or 50 years, and has not shrunk at any[?] prolonged period during that. And you have to ask yourself why that is. And 1 of the reasons is that London has become one of the greatest global cities on the planet. And it’s a huge, great magnet. It attracts a lot of investment from abroad but it also attracts investment from around the country. And I think the solution to that problem is not to do down London. You know, Britain is much stronger by having this great capital city. But the way we build up the north is by investing in the north.
And the point of the northern powerhouse is that we take these different cities; Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Hull, Newcastle and the like, and you realize that they’re actually, many of them, quite close to each other. Here’s an interesting fact. If you took the central line in London, the tube line, from one end to the other that is further than the distance between Manchester and Leeds. But many hundreds of thousands of people take their journey in London, but they don’t take their journey across the M62 in the Pennines, although it feels like on some days.
The - so our plan and our proposal is you bring these cities closer together. You connect them up with better transport, with science links, with big company investments, supporting small business. You also give these areas much more powerful voices. So Greater Manchester has come to me and said, ‘We want an elected mayor for the whole of Greater Manchester.’ So that includes Bolton and Bury and Stockport, not just the middle of Manchester. And that means they’re going to have a mayor for Greater Manchester that rivals a mayor for London or a mayor for Paris or a mayor for New York. So there’s a big powerful voice there as well for the city.
And the interesting thing is, and it’s only just the start, is that the job creation in our country is now happening more quickly in the north. The economic growth is happening now more quickly in the north. It is something we’ve got to sustain. But we’ve got something real and we’ve got to work at it because this is something that has bedevilled our country for a very long time. And I think it makes for a weaker United Kingdom if we put all of our eggs in one basket 200 miles to the south. That is not a strength for our country. And of course it all went tragically wrong for everyone 6 or 7 years ago when the City of London blew up. We’ve got to have more strings to our bow and that’s what we’re doing.
Yesterday, we had an excellent meeting actually just on one area where we can create a northern powerhouse which is in life sciences and health. And actually in the north of England the teaching hospitals, the universities, the science-based businesses, the science parks and the NHS have got together far more than actually in London or in other parts of the country in order to create a really powerful life sciences and health-based hub. So I think it can be done, particularly if all the different strengths of the north of England come together in the way that they have with life sciences and health.
You’ve said that unemployment numbers are going down, however from my view is that there’s either zero-hours contracts being offered to people or the job centres are forcing people into setting up business on their own, even if that’s something that they don’t want to do. What’s the government doing about these things?
It’s a really good point. We want real, full-time, well-paid jobs to be created. As an economy starts to recover and ours is now recovering quite strongly, this can take time to come through. But I would say now, if you look at the jobs being created, the figures suggest 9 in 10 of them are full-time jobs, not part-time jobs. More of them are now in more skilled trades rather than unskilled trades. So I think the picture is getting better. But I certainly don’t think this is something we can be complacent about.
So first of all we have seen the first increase - real increase in the minimum wage in many years. Now it’s £6.50 and I look forward to it going to £7 and beyond. I think that helps. We’re legislating so that these zero-hour contracts which account for about 3% of total jobs in the UK, they cannot have exclusivity clauses. So if you have a zero hours’ contract you can work elsewhere. I think that is vitally important. We need to make sure that those employers who are unscrupulous and pay below the minimum wage that we actually come down on them very hard and we’re doing that.
But I do think if you look at the way the economy’s growing, the sort of jobs that we’ve been looking at in the last couple of days here in the north-west, there are good full-time jobs coming through. And the key here I think is going to be helping people and making sure that they have the training and the aptitudes and the ability to do those jobs.
One of the businesses we were at earlier, they’re growing their employee numbers hugely but they said they were struggling to hire more than 50% of people locally rather than from other European Union countries. Now when we’ve got such - still - still high levels of unemployment - actually unemployment in the north-west is lower as a percentage than in London. But still a lot of people are unemployed. It’s tragic that we can’t do better at training, educating and preparing people for work.
Now I think there’s a soft side to that which is the education and training part. But frankly I think there’s a slightly harder part to it which is to say that our welfare system should not go on supporting you if you can work but refuse to work. And this is something we put in place.
Today, if you go to Job Centre Plus and you won’t fill out a CV, you won’t take a job that you’re offered, you won’t put in for interviews where you’ve got a prospect of getting a job, we do dock your benefits. Now I know that is tough but I think that is right. You pay your taxes so there’s a welfare system to support people who really need it. You don’t pay your taxes to support people who could work but refuse to. And I think it’s vital we get that right too.
Now that we’re in 2015 looking back what do you feel was the greatest change made in 2014 or what you are most proud of?
The greatest change in 2014. I sometimes get confused about what happened in what year. Look, I think, as I said, I think the biggest task for this government has been about getting the economy moving again. Because there are all sorts of other things I’m passionate about. I want to see great schools. I want to see our health service improve. I want to see all sorts of things happen in our country. But none of this is possible unless you get the economy moving, unless you get the deficit down, unless you have that sense of safety and security. And to me, when in 2014 we started growing faster than any other country in the developed world that was the moment I will treasure the most because you can then see the plan we’re putting in place is working. And all the other things we want to achieve we’re going to be - we’re going to be able to.
Well there was something in the budget that I delivered in 2014. The changes to pensions I think are going to be 1 of the things to have the most lasting impact on your lives. Now, you’re all of course working people and you’re not retired. But there was very little freedom about what you could do with your pension until those changes were announced by me.
They’re coming into effect in April this year and what it will mean is you have the freedom to make use of the money you’ve saved into a pension. You can make a decision about where to put that money, how to use that money, how much to save for later in your retirement, how much to use earlier. You don’t have to buy an annuity if you don’t want to.
These were very restrictive rules. We’ve got rid of them all. It’s going to be a huge, huge change in pensions and I think it’s going to make saving a much more attractive proposition for all of you. Because I think, you know, you’re probably all thinking, ‘Is it worth putting money aside now? Is this pension going to be worth something in the future? Is it going to support me in my older age?’ With these changes I think you’ll have a lot more confidence that that is a good thing to do to save for a pension.
So I would - if I was going to identify 1 kind of policy change that’s probably the one that, you know, in 10, 20 years’ time they’ll be still talking about as a really significant moment in our economic policy.
But the Prime Minister’s right. I think the overall recovery - I mean, everything we’ve been talking about, investment in the north, in National Health Service, none of these things are possible if you don’t have a strong economy. You can’t afford any of these things without a strong economy. And there’s - there’s a bit of a myth around that somehow the economic fortunes of individuals have become disconnected from the economic fortunes of the country. Well, don’t believe that because you know that when the country’s economy fails, the people who suffer are the people who are made unemployed, the people who put on the short term - short hour contracts, are the people who see their public services cut because the money has run out.
You know, that is what happens when economic policy fails. Either - it is the people of this country who pay the price for that. And it was when you get the economy growing that the jobs are created. And, you know, those 100,000 people here in the north-west alone who got a job who didn’t have a job that is a real improvement in their economic fortunes. And the people who are more secure in their jobs that is a real improvement in their economic security and quality of life.
I did get a lot of letters from people in 2014 from men who said that because of the change we’ve made, ‘I’ve been able to marry the person I love,’ and that was good.
Can I thank you all again for the very warm welcome? Can I thank Unilever for all you’re doing? The investment, the research and development, the products you’re developing here and the people you’re employing, the training and the apprentices that you’re giving - you’re providing. This is a really key part of our economy and your success and our country’s success are bound up together, so keep at it. Thank you very much indeed.